Lyrical BalladsThe Work:
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads first appeared in 1798 and was
expanded in 1800. The 1800 edition includes new poems and Wordsworth’s now-famous “Preface.” Lyrical
Ballads contains some of the early treatments of subjects and themes by Wordsworth and Coleridge that
would occupy the bulk of each poet’s oeuvre. These subjects and themes include the relationship between
humanity and nature, the psychology of the human heart, the fascination with the supernatural, and the
sympathetic presentation of the plight of old hunters, insane mothers, and the victims of England’s various
Lyrical Ballads, especially the 1798 version, has long been regarded as a major influence on the poetry of the
Romantic period in England. Many consider its influence to have been not unlike that of Edmund Spenser’s
The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) on Elizabethan poetry or T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations
(1917) on modern poetry. The 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads contains twenty-three poems, most famous
among them Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s only major contribution to the volume, “The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Both poems explore one man’s difficult attempts to understand who he is in
relation to the natural world. Other well-known poems from 1798 are lyrical ballads: “Simon Lee, the Old
Huntsman,” “The Thorn,” “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “The Idiot Boy.” Poems that are not lyrical
ballads include “Tintern Abbey,” “Expostulation and Reply,” and “The Tables Turned.”
The second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800) comprises new poemsalmost all of them by Wordsworthwhile
the first volume essentially reprints the poems of 1798. Among the well-known works in the second volume is
Wordsworth’s great pastoral poem “Michael.” The volume also includes the enigmatic Lucy poems as well
as “Hart-Leap Well,” “The Brothers,” “There Was a Boy,” “Nutting,” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar.”
Initially, Lyrical Ballads was seen as a welcome break from eighteenth century poetry, whichdominated by
class bias and the concept of poetic dictionwas far removed from the language of everyday speech. However,
in the 1950’s, examinations of English poetry published in the 1790’s revealed that, in terms of language and
subjects, Lyrical Ballads was hardly groundbreaking. Later analyses argued that the collection was a reaction,
but not against the poetry of the earlier eighteenth century; the collection was a reaction against the poetry
written in the latter half of the eighteenth centurythe poetry produced in what is now known as the age of
sensibility. The originality of Lyrical Ballads is now believed to lie in the attempt to anatomize, as well as
subvert, the approach to both life and literature espoused by the adherents of sensibility.
Sensibility was a late eighteenth century shift from using reason in matters of ethics and perception to relying
instead on one’s artistic and benevolent feelings. Its focus on benevolence encouraged its followers to
consider the plight of the less fortunate, like the poor, slaves, and womenin other words, the agenda of various
radical movements of the day. Such an approach to life, though supported by the radical Wordsworth and
Coleridge, could easily lead to sentimentality and mawkishness. It was this kind of simpleminded, extreme
behavior that the two poets “attacked” in 1798.
Lyrical Ballads 1
An obvious influence on Lyrical Ballads was the increasing popularity of the ballad form in the latter half of
the eighteenth century. The major impetus was Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a
collection of English and Scottish folk ballads. The ballad’s popularity not only led to imitations of ballads
written and published by late eighteenth century poets but also to a tendency to call poems of any species
“ballads,” just to take advantage of the form’s popularity.
True ballads have their origins in folk tradition, though their influence on literate culture has been
considerable. Lyrical Ballads is a prime example of this influence. The focus in a traditional ballad is on a
single narrative, and the action is centered primarily on the climax of the story. Character traits and motivation
are underplayed if not absent altogether. Though not the only stanzaic form found in ballads, the ballad stanza
is the most common. It consists of four lines, the first and third having eight syllables, the second and fourth
only six. The rhyme scheme is usually abcb. This is the stanza form used in “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” as well as other poems in Lyrical Ballads.
What, then, is a lyrical ballad? First, it is a literary ballad rather than a folk ballad. It is a poem composed in a
literate culture by a professional poet. In Lyrical Ballads, the term “lyrical” appears to refer to the
experimental nature of some of the poems in the volume, a claim made in the “Advertisement” of the 1798
edition and developed in more detail in the “Preface” affixed to later editions. The term appears to indicate
some significant changes that Wordsworth and Coleridge made to the traditional form. For example, there is a
concernimplied or expressedin the poems themselves, about how they should be read (“Simon Lee, the Old
Huntsman” is a prime example). In some of the poems (like Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”), the
first-person-narrator point of view is of great interest. More attention also is paid to the quality that is slighted
in the folk ballad, a focus on individual characters’ motives, mental states, and so forth.
Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads replaced the short “Advertisement” of the
1798 edition. This preface was later revised to include Wordsworth’s observations on diction, the
“Appendix” of 1802. The “Advertisement” (1798) claims that the “majority of the following are to be
considered as experiments,” which use “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of
society” as opposed to the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of poetic diction. The “Preface” has two
major aims. The first aim is to explain the claims of originality made for the poems of Lyrical Ballads in the
“Advertisement.” Along with his defense of the use of “common” language, Wordsworth also staunchly
defends the use of the lower ranks of society as subjects, claiming that in the common people one finds the
universal passions of the human heart in a pure, untainted, state.
The second aim of the “Preface” is to deal with the crucial issue of how poetry that proposes to treat common
life realisticallyas Wordsworth claims his doescan employ the “unrealistic” poetic devices of rhyme and
regular metrical patterns. Essentially, Wordsworth’s defense is that the pleasure that his poetry gives, in part
because of the use of meter and rhyme, is faithful to the human experience. Therefore, he says, his poetry is
The “Preface” also contains some of Wordsworth’s well-known pronouncements on poetry and the poet: A
poet is “a man speaking to men,” the language used in poetry does not differ from that used in prose, and
poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” the result of “emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. An excellent
one-volume biography as well as an examination of Coleridge’s poetic achievements. Part of the Blackwell
Critical Biographies series.
The Work: 2
Bate, Walter Jackson. Coleridge. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Though dated, this brief study remains a
classic in its field and one of the best introductions to Coleridge’s life and literary career. Bate, one of the
premier literary scholars of the late twentieth century, was known for his insight and clarity of style.
Blades, John. Wordsworth and Coleridge: “Lyrical Ballads.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Part one
of this study analyzes the poems’ themes, including childhood, the imagination, and social issues. Part two
examines the political and literary backgrounds of the late eighteenth century and Wordsworth’s and
Coleridge’s literary theories. Also includes summarized responses to Lyrical Ballads by modern scholars I.
A. Richards, Robert Mayo, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and Paul de Man.
Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. An excellent
biography of Wordsworth, based on an extensive reexamination of the primary and secondary records of his
life. In contrast to earlier opinions, Gill portrays Wordsworth as a dedicated, lifelong poet, rather than as a
person who betrayed his abilities and beliefs in exchange for a conservative life of retirement. Includes a
discussion of Wordsworth’s role in producing Lyrical Ballads.
Jordan, John E. Why the “Lyrical Ballads”? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. The subtitle of
this influential study states precisely what the book is about: “The Background, Writing, and Character of
Wordsworth’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads.” Although Jordan’s focus is primarily on Wordsworth, there is also
extensive commentary on Coleridge’s contribution to Lyrical Ballads.
Richey, William, and Daniel Robinson, eds. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Lyrical
Ballads” and Related Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. In addition to the text of the 1798 edition of
Lyrical Ballads, this book provides background information on the poems. Also has examples of late
eighteenth century poetry and prose, which place Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection in the context of its
Sisman, Adam. The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. New York: Viking Press, 2006. A dual
biography of Wordsworth and Coleridge, with an emphasis on their relationshipboth personal and artistic.
Contains an extensive discussion of the creation of Lyrical Ballads.